“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”
It has been only six months from the official announcement of OpenType 1.8 at ATypI Warsaw, and the topic of the Variable font format (VAR) was the undisputed star of this year’s Monotype-hosted font technology conference. Compared to technical conferences of previous years, the number of attendees was dramatically increased, demonstrating widespread excitement for this new technology from individual type designers to large tech and software corporations.
Wide variety was also evident in the list of the speakers: from playful Underware and how they experiment with interfaces of Variable fonts, to techie Werner Lemberg and how he dealt with the auto-hinting of Noto Sans.
The characteristics of the new Variable font format have the possibility to shake the foundations of typography — something apparent in all talks. Designers and developers are questioning old assumptions and already asking for more.
Liron Lavi Turkenich’s talk was the first to question the boldness of a design and explain how cultural background can influence what we consider to be bold. She used Variable Hebrew fonts to pose this question directly to the audience and showed that Variable fonts can be used as an educational tool.
John Hudson talked about the stylistic variants that are necessary in the support of complex scripts and mathematics, and proposed that VAR fonts can offer a compact file size and flexibility on the design that we didn’t have before. Marianna Paszkowska’s presentation was about the possibilities that Variable fonts open for more artistic typographic experiments.
We could summarise the interest in Variable fonts in the following way:
_ Development tools and implementation of the VAR specification
_ Foundries and industry
_UI and bringing it to the world
PART 1, tools
The three main font editing apps presented their latest capabilities and their implementation of the new OT 1.8 specification. Fontlab presented their new interface for spacing and kerning. Glyphs announced their new standalone apps: MergeGlyphs to compare and merge Glyphs files, CommitGlyphs which is an extension app for Git, and FontTable Viewer to view a font’s raw tables.
Robofont announced version 2.0 that is built within the OpenType 1.8 spec and UFO3 support. RoboFab tools have been replaced by FontParts, and a new Extension Store will contain all the scripts and custom tools that have been written for Robofont.
Dutch Type Library presented tools and extensions for auto-spacing that they built for Glyphs and Robofont. Adam Twardoch showed a set of (mostly experimental) tools and scripts available at GitHub for developing OpenType fonts and making Variable fonts.
Erik van Blokland talked about the ‘designspace’, a fundamental aspect of how we think about and design variable fonts. In Superpolator and MutatorMath, designspace is the document that describes the relation between masters and all the information that one needs for interpolation and variable fonts. His talk was focused on how designspace has changed in the new variation model compared to MutatorMath.
In one workshop, Georg Seifert and Rainer Erich Scheichelbauer showed how to use the Glyphs smart components for the type design process. From Process Type Foundry, Nicole Dotin’s workshop was about shell scripting (no mouse needed) and making webfont specimens easily by using the Terminal and a Bash script.
Mike Duggan of Microsoft led a Variable font hinting workshop. He discussed how hinting a Variable font can mean that we hint only the Regular weight. Here is an article about it.
part 2, foundries
The first talk of the conference was from Dan Rhatigan who summarised what has happened this year in VAR development. In it he set the tone during the conference for corporations to admit that they have neither a solid business plan nor solid tools for producing the Variable fonts they’d like to. At the same time he presented Adobe’s latest experimental project of Source Serif supporting Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese (CJKV) languages, and the new possibilities that VAR fonts offer for that particular market.
Sampo Kaasila talked about the visual representation of a font chooser that could be convenient for the VAR market. The remarkable thing was that this platform (not yet released) was based on AI technology and resulted in the shape of a bird.
Microsoft’s Peter Constable and Rob McKaughan talked about the OpenType 1.8 specificat and how PCs can display the named instances of Variable fonts even if the browser doesn’t support them. This is not a webfont, but locally installed fonts. So, in theory, Windows could actually implement VAR fonts in their basic apps. They then discussed using Variable fonts for virtual reality.
Monotype’s Tom Rickner and Bob Taylor addressed the issue of legacy fonts and the challenges inherent in transforming the sources to compatible files ready for the Variable format.
One very interesting talk was Jeff Wu from Taiwan’s Arphic foundry. He presented their own font editor that was building CJKV fonts from predefined elements, similar to the way that VAR fonts can be built. This was extremely useful for them in minimising the font file size and keeping the design process manageable.
Jean-Baptiste Levée talked about how smaller foundries can deal with variable fonts and the question of overcomplicated products, mentioning UI and referring to his company’s parametric service, Prototypo.
Underware showed their Zeitung Flex font, revealed secrets of how it works in normal browsers, and their own plugin for InDesign that makes it come alive. At the end they showed how their new variable font contains their entire library — and soon everybody’s library.
part 3, ui for the normal folk
Laurence Penney presented the AxisPraxis 2 beta that can now store and share specimens, apart from various typographic controls that have been added. For the time being it’s the only Web service that someone can use to test, present, and share specimens of variable fonts. He also showed a Web service for making instances on the fly for non-variable browsers.
Roel Nieskens talked about his experiments with colour variable fonts. And exploding emoji.
There were also two round-table discussions:
_ The market for Variable fonts
_ Liberating Digital Type from the Metal Rectangle, with the main subject being experimental approaches on spacing and kerning issues
Of the many memorable moments of these discussions, David Berlow discussed the opportunities that come along with VAR fonts, from responsive design to publications. He also invited type designers to reconsider the fact that, with variable fonts, we don’t just sell fonts any longer, but typographic solutions.
Matthew Rechs of Adobe talked about the need to rethink how to move forward with the variable format, especially at Typekit.
It’s remarkable how the type community embraced the TYPO Labs conference, populated with so many questions and experiments surrounding Variable fonts. On the one hand, large technology corporations are starting to support it in their apps, and on the other, the small, independent foundries and university-based experts are quickly exploring its possibilities. Young geeks are excited about it for the first time, and collaboration has taken hold among experts who are delighted that the technology has gained such rapid acceptance. This is only positive for the future of this new, flexible format that can be revolutionary for the way we make and use type.
Btw, all the talks can be viewed on the Typotalks website here, just search for the name of the speaker.